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Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Perils of Awakening

I've been wondering for some time just what U.S. authorities think the Awakening Councils will get up to once we leave Iraq. Unfortunately, I may have been too optimistic in assuming that the Sunni groups -- recruited by us for their anti-Al Qaeda tendencies -- were a potential problem for after we leave. An apparently serious U.S. misstep today may change that calculus.

Obviously, there are some things to like about the development of Sunni groups who wish to aid the U.S. in fighting al Qaeda. Just like there were things to like about the development of jihadist groups who wished to help us fight the Soviets in Afghanistan back in the 1980s. You remember how that worked out.

The Awakening Councils -- trained, armed and empowered by the Iraqi government and our own -- have evolved into an ad hoc army with between 60,000 and 100,000 members. Their prima facie purpose is to expel al Qaeda from Iraq. But that's not a mission statement and it's not a philosophy, it's simply a task.

There are two risks involved with this task-oriented approach. First, there's the risk they will succeed. We have an obvious interest in their success, of course, but once the task is accomplished, we find ourselves with a 100,000 strong Sunni army in the middle of a Shi'ite dominated political scene. Given the sectarian situation in Iraq over the last four years, it's not hard to guess what could happen next.

The second risk should be apparent after today's news that the U.S. military may have inadvertently bombed an Awakening checkpoint, killing six. It's difficult to estimate the political ramifications of this development. We can -- and should -- hope that it will taken as an unfortunate accident, which it almost certainly was.

Realistically, however, there is a significant chance it will be taken another way. The fragile Awakening alliance could split into pro- and anti-American camps. Or the majority of the alliance could turn against U.S. influence. In a worst-case (but probably unlikely) scenario, al Qaeda could exploit the situation to win back some of the support it has lost.

Hopefully, this is an unduly pessimistic view. But the complexity of the situation in Iraq continues to outpace our ability to analyze it. On the bright side, whatever ensues from this incident will probably help us get a better view of exactly where we stand with the Awakening Councils and (to a certain, limited extent) what we can expect from them down the road.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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